Magazine article The Spectator

The Slow Track

Magazine article The Spectator

The Slow Track

Article excerpt

When a hobo dies after a lifetime riding the rail across America, his fellow hoboes say, 'He's gone west.' I could hardly have felt more alive as I went west from New York's Penn Station 2,500 miles across America, hunk of Emmenthal and 10 slices of Citterio prosciutto by my side, New York's two robustly conservative papers, the Sun and the Post, on my lap. Two dollars to the pound.

Heaven was right on track.

First came the English Perpendicular and German Gothic spires looming over Philadelphia. Then the steps of the Greek revival Philadelphia Museum of Art, the ones that Sylvester Stallone ran up and down in Rocky.

The farmland of Pennsylvania followed, the horizon broken only by grain elevators and church towers. At Lancaster -- the capital of America for a day in September 1777 -- an Amish couple and their five-year-old daughter got on. The Amish rules, the Ordnung, forbid moustaches with their military connotations; thus the man's chinstrap beard. The women are forbidden fripperies like buttons -- the wife and daughter fastened their blue anklelength dresses and their white mob caps with safety pins. The man was perfectly happy to flick on the overhead light to read The Pennsylvanian, though.

Moving into the Appalachians, you see poor, white, rural America -- those born literally on the wrong side of the tracks, their mud-streaked trailers squeezed between the railway line and the river. The further you go into rural America, the number of pick-ups picks up too -- practically all of them Fords.

Despite Ford's huge losses, it's the biggestselling marque in the country.

That night, I closed my curtains on the flaming steel furnace chimneys of Pittsburgh's dying rust belt. I had dined well and deeply during our four-hour stopover, at the opulent Victorian former train station, now a restaurant (Grand Concourse, 1 Station Square, Pittsburgh, tel: 412 261 1717).

I woke in Chicago. My breakfast view was splendid: America's tallest building, the Sears Tower, and the Florentine palazzi of the Midwest's mercantile kings. The internal view of the train is not so good. Amtrak decor remains trapped in the 1970s, with the leather revolving seats in the glass-topped observation car upholstered in chocolate and cream.

Like many of the passengers. …

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